the trouble with high school English

This isn't really about the trouble with high school English everywhere and for all times, but for Washington state here and now. I've recently become involved in a project (I'm a very small cog in the machine) that looks to increase the preparedness of high school students when they get to college English. Right now, in Washington state, 44 percent of high school graduates test at the developmental level of college English, which is mostly about their ability to write and respond to non-literary texts. This translates into 55 percent of students heading to a two-year college testing into developmental English while 12 percent at the competitive four year schools (I think this means University of Washington and Washington State University, not the regional four-year schools, Eastern, Central and Western Washington universities, along with Evergreen State College) do so. The bulk of these students have passed the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, known by its acronym WASL (think of the Christmas drink) which assesses 10th grade skills and expectations.

This is a huge number of students who are being failed by, I'm assuming, the public schools. Spokane Falls has been working on this issue already with one local high school, Shadle Park. The problem may be in the private schools as well, but I don't know about that. I do understand now, somewhat, how students can be saying that they've been getting high grades in junior and senior English classes and then they get hammered when they come to us. The culprit, at least the supposed culprit, is the lack of statewide expectations or criteria for junior and senior English courses. At this point, there is nothing, nothing, indicating what a high school junior or senior level English course should address or what should be taught or what a student should ostensibly learn. Nothing. When I heard that, I was surprised, but not shocked. Students can pass the WASL in 10th grade (sophomore level) and be done with English, at least in a way that can be compared to their classmates statewide. After that, it seems that pretty much anything goes.

What we've found on our own at SFCC (I'm not involved in this) was echoed in the materials I've read about this project. High school students, juniors and seniors, work only with literary texts, or at least almost exclusively with literary texts. Of course, having just read some essays in my Shakespeare class, I'm not sure they are getting solid instruction in that either. The movement college faculty would like to see is toward working with non-literary texts, which means essays and other non-fiction, maybe even book-length non-fiction. It will be interesting to see how various high schools and high school English teachers respond to an impetus to better prepare their students to meet the expectations of college writing rather than being a more insular sort of writing. My guess is all those high school teachers thought they were preparing their students for college work, but given some of the stories my students tell, I could be way off the mark on that.

The focus of the project is not to force high school teachers to do the bidding of college faculty, but to better prepare them by letting them know what sort of writing students will be doing. I know that college faculty won't be changing their expectation to come into alignment with what high school students learn. Colleges and universities should not refocus to build on what the high schools provide but should instead work with the high schools to better prepare the students for the expectations of college writing. In our FYC, we've moved away from the personal essay, from descriptive essays, and focus almost exclusively on reading and responding to texts, non-literary texts, though generally well written and about something of substance. My students this quarter, and until the elections end, will be reading UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation. It seems to be a pretty easy read, though students have a hard time picking out the main ideas. I'll post more on this as time goes on, which won't be until May unless I get some new information between then and now.


High School

We've seen a similar situation in our state--that is, in the high schools there is no curricular requirement to teach writiing beyond tenth grade. I wouldn't blame the teachers, though. They have so many students and have to deal with all kinds of shit (like helicopter parents to the nth degree, for instance) that I can see how writing gets short shrift. If we want to help them, we need to push like crazy to lower class sizes and support them in getting rid of time and energy eaters that get in the way of thoughtful writing instruction.

Anyhow, happy fiftieth. I am pretty happy to have turned 50 and hope that it brings you joy.


and the responsible party is?

Thanks for the birthday wish. I'm sure it will be great. At least I'm not dead or dying.

I just lost my response and probably won't rework the whole thing. I hate it when that happens.

I agree the failure is systemic, but the system can't fail without the necessary support, or lack of support, from within. We are going through the same thing with math, where students who have had high school calculus are testing into developmental math classes. I've had students with AP English backgrounds (but who didn't even bother to take the test because they knew there was no point) in developmental classes. This sort of thing is more prone to happen in the rural schools where the English teachers, according to my students, haven't got a clue. It's not that they are overworked or overwhelmed, it's that they don't know what they are doing and they don't bother to find out what their students need to succeed at the next level. Teachers shouldn't be accepting marginal students into AP classes just because they need to fill a roster. Those students need instruction tailored to their needs and they should be taught according to their needs (I think I'm channeling a pedagogical Marx).

I know this is an overly broad claim, but with nearly half of all students who pass the standardized expectations testing into developmental writing classes, it's not just the school, the school district or the state's superintendent of public instruction who are to blame, but the practitioners as well. The necessary change isn't going to come from the top. That's where the problems come from. The necessary change is going to have to come from the classroom. If that doesn't happen, students will continue to pass their high school classes earning A's and then hit the wall, wondering why their writing sucks. It's the teaching and learning experiences they've had before us that suck (and some of us suck at teaching them too, but that's another rant).

Well, Yeah, But

well, who is hiring the teachers? Do they have a union? Do they have any incentive to do the work to either provide the kind of attention students need? And how many of the teachers are teaching because no one else wanted the job? How many teachers are stuck because they need the pension and salary to raise children or take care of aging parents. I mention this because I worked for 15 years in the public high schools as a composition assistant, and I saw just how hard it was to manage a class and teach in a dynamic, inspiring way. I also saw a good many people leave teaching for other jobs. I chose to move to community college teaching because I didn't want to be bothered with the misbehavior and bureaucracy.

That said, we are talking about two different school systems at two points in time, and I can't really argue against what you see as being necessary in your area. My question is, how do we support the high school teachers so that change can happen?

not simple

You're right that it's not something easily resolved. I think, as I noted in the original post, that the new push to develop some standard expectations for the last two years of high school writing will be a step in the right direction. That may not be the sort of support you're thinking about though. Smaller classes, fewer classes, would be a good start, as would help developing a curriculum that will prepare students for college work.

Junior and senior level high school classes tend to be built around literature. Junior English is often an American literature class or a British literature class. The focus is on responding to literary texts rather than the texts students will encounter beyond literature. It's a lot more fun to teach literature than it is to teach composition, and a lot of faculty are going to have to move away from that, at least that's my preconception. The more experience students get in responding to nonfiction texts while in high school, the better prepared they will be for college. Maybe on thing to do if a class is built around literature is to have students summarize and respond to scholarly works on that literature. That way students can work with both fiction and nonfiction works.

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